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Williams v. Crawford

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

March 2, 2018

Marcel Edward Williams and Loomis Armored US, LLC, Appellants
Glen Dale Crawford and Daytona Crawford, Appellees


          Before Justices Puryear, Field, and Bourland


          Scott K. Field, Justice

         Appellee Glen Dale Crawford sued Loomis Armored US, LLC, and Loomis employee Marcel Edward Williams (collectively, the "Loomis Defendants") for personal injuries sustained when Crawford's car was struck by an armored truck driven by Williams. Following a jury trial, the trial court signed a judgment awarding Crawford both compensatory and exemplary damages. On appeal, the Loomis Defendants challenge (1) the trial court's decision to allow Crawford's medical experts to testify that Crawford's medical conditions were caused by the accident; (2) the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury's determination that Crawford's medical conditions were caused by the accident and, consequently, the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury's award of compensatory damages; (3) the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury's finding that Williams was grossly negligent; and (4) and the trial court's decision to admit certain evidence at trial.

         For the reasons set forth below, we affirm that portion of the judgment awarding compensatory damages against the Loomis Defendants, conditioned on Crawford filing a remittitur reducing by $27, 856.88 the award for medical care expenses incurred in the past. We reverse that portion of the judgment finding Williams grossly negligent and awarding exemplary damages against Williams and render judgment that Crawford take nothing on this claim.


         On May 10, 2012, Crawford was driving his extended-cab pickup truck on his way home from work when, while stopped at a red light, he was hit from behind by Williams, driving a Loomis armored truck. At trial, Crawford presented evidence showing that the force of the impact caused his vehicle to move into the intersection, that his seat was thrown backward into the back cab, and that he struck his head on the rear windshield, shattering that windshield. When EMS personnel arrived at the scene, Crawford complained of neck and back pain and was transported to a nearby hospital. Upon evaluation by emergency-room personnel, Crawford was diagnosed with "blunt trauma, concussion" and released from the hospital the same day. Approximately one month later, Crawford returned to his work as a dump-truck driver for a local construction company. However, according to his employer, Crawford was unable to perform his duties in the same manner that he had before the accident, and he stopped working entirely in September 2013.[1]

         Crawford sued the Loomis Defendants, asserting claims for common-law negligence and negligence per se against the Loomis Defendants and a claim for gross negligence against Williams. Before trial, the Loomis Defendants stipulated that Williams was negligent, that his negligence proximately caused the accident, and that he was acting within the course and scope of employment with Loomis at the time of the accident. As a result of the stipulation, the only issues remaining at trial were (1) the amount of damages, if any, that Crawford sustained as a result of the accident, and (2) whether Williams was grossly negligent and, if so, the amount of exemplary damages that should be assessed.

         At trial, Crawford's evidence included the testimony of three medical doctors (an orthopedic surgeon, a neurologist, and a radiologist), all of whom he had designated as expert witnesses. Each treating doctor described the various symptoms that Crawford had presented following the accident (both orthopedic and neurological), the steps taken to assess Crawford's symptoms, and his ultimate diagnoses. The doctors also testified that, to a reasonable medical probability, Crawford's medical conditions were caused by the May 2012 accident. Crawford further presented the expert testimony of a vocational economist, who testified that Crawford's physical impairments rendered him "totally disabled" and opined as to Crawford's loss of earning capacity. Finally, Crawford presented the expert testimony of a certified life-care planner, who testified to Crawford's future medical needs. The only witness presented at trial by the Loomis Defendants was Crawford, through the reading of excerpts from his deposition.

         At the conclusion of the trial, the jury was asked to determine the amount of damages that "would fair[ly] and reasonably compensate [Crawford] for his injuries, if any, that resulted from the [accident]." The jury awarded Crawford $840, 914 in various compensatory damages. The jury also found that Williams was grossly negligent and awarded Crawford $5, 000 in exemplary damages. The trial court later signed a judgment in accordance with the jury's verdict.

         This appeal followed.


         In eight issues, the Loomis Defendants challenge (1) the jury's decision to award any compensatory damages for Crawford's complained-of injuries; (2) the trial court's decision to admit certain evidence at trial; and (3) the jury's finding that Williams was grossly negligent. We will examine each of these challenges in turn.

         I. Challenges to the Jury's Finding on Causation and Award of Compensatory Damages

         Establishing causation in a personal-injury case requires the plaintiff to prove that the defendant's negligence caused an event and that the event caused the plaintiff's complained-of injuries. JLG Trucking LLC v. Garza, 466 S.W.3d 157, 162 (Tex. 2015). "Proving that the event sued upon caused the plaintiff's alleged injuries is part and parcel of proving the amount of damages to which the plaintiff is entitled. The causal nexus between the event sued upon and the plaintiff's injuries must be shown by competent evidence." Guevara v. Ferrer, 247 S.W.3d 662, 666 (Tex. 2007) (quoting Morgan v. Compugraphic Corp., 675 S.W.2d 729, 732 (Tex. 1984)). Here, because the Loomis Defendants stipulated before trial that Williams's negligence caused the May 2012 accident, the sole remaining issues at trial with respect to Crawford's compensatory damages were whether and to what extent the May 2012 accident caused Crawford to suffer the medical conditions for which he sought compensation.

         In three related issues on appeal, the Loomis Defendants challenge the jury's decision to award compensatory damages for Crawford's medical conditions. Specifically, in issue one, the Loomis Defendants challenge the trial court's decision to allow Crawford's medical experts to testify that the medical conditions for which Crawford sought compensation were caused by the accident. In issues four and seven, the Loomis Defendants challenge the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the jury's finding that Crawford suffered compensable injuries as a result of the accident and the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the amount of damages awarded by the jury to Crawford as compensation for his injuries.[2]

         A. Expert Testimony

         Texas Rule of Evidence 702 provides that "a witness who qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue." Tex. R. Evid. 702. In other words, "[a]n expert witness may testify regarding 'scientific, technical, or other specialized' matters if the expert is qualified and if the expert's opinion is relevant and based on a reliable foundation." Mack Trucks, Inc. v. Tamez, 206 S.W.3d 572, 578 (Tex. 2006) (quoting Rule 702 of rules of evidence). Here, the Loomis Defendants do not assert that Crawford's medical experts were unqualified to testify as expert witnesses in this case. Rather, the Loomis Defendants challenge the testimony of all three of Crawford's medical experts on the ground that their opinions as to the cause of Crawford's medical conditions were unreliable.

         A trial court has broad discretion in deciding whether to admit or exclude expert testimony. Id. (citing Exxon Pipeline Co. v. Zwahr, 88 S.W.3d 623, 629 (Tex. 2002)). As a reviewing court, we will not reverse a trial court's ruling on the admissibility of expert testimony unless that discretion is abused. Id. A court abuses its discretion if it acts without reference to guiding rules and principles. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. Mendez, 204 S.W.3d 797, 800 (Tex. 2006). A trial court's "[a]dmission of expert testimony that does not meet the reliability requirement is an abuse of discretion." Id.

         A party who properly objects to the admission of expert testimony at trial may also assert on appeal that the expert testimony is unreliable and therefore legally insufficient to support the judgment. City of San Antonio v. Pollock, 284 S.W.3d 809, 817 (Tex. 2009); Maritime Overseas Corp. v. Ellis, 971 S.W.2d 402, 409 (Tex. 1998) ("To preserve a complaint that scientific evidence is unreliable and thus, no evidence, a party must object to the evidence before trial or when the evidence is offered."). This legal-sufficiency review "encompasses the entire record, including contrary evidence tending to show the expert is incompetent or unreliable." Whirlpool Corp. v. Camacho, 298 S.W.3d 631, 638 (Tex. 2009); see also City of Keller v. Wilson, 168 S.W.3d 802, 810 (Tex. 2005) (explaining that no evidence exists if "the court is barred by rules of law or of evidence from giving weight to the only evidence offered to prove a vital fact"). In addition, expert opinion testimony that is based completely on mere speculation or that is conclusory on its face will not support a judgment on appellate review, even when no objection is made to its admission at trial. Pollock, 284 S.W.3d at 816.

         The reliability requirement for expert testimony under Rule 702 focuses on the principles, research, and methodology underlying an expert's conclusions. Zwahr, 88 S.W.3d at 629. Expert testimony is unreliable if it is not grounded "'in the methods and procedures of science' and is no more than 'subjective belief or unsupported speculation.'" Id. (quoting Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 590 (1993)). In assessing the reliability of a particular methodology, a court may consider the factors set out in the Texas Supreme Court's decision in E.I. du Pont de Numours & Co. v. Robinson, 923 S.W.2d 549, 557 (Tex. 1995).[3] In addition, when experts rely on experience, knowledge, and training rather than a particular methodology to reach their conclusions, a court should assess reliability by determining whether there is "too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion proffered." Mack Trucks, 206 S.W.3d at 578 (citing Gammill v. Jack Williams Chevrolet, Inc., 972 S.W.2d 713, 726 (Tex. 1998)). "We are not required . . . to ignore fatal gaps in an expert's analysis or assertions that are simply incorrect." Volkswagen of Am., Inc. v. Ramirez, 159 S.W.3d 897, 912 (Tex. 2004).

         In a personal-injury case, the plaintiff must present expert testimony to establish causation as to any medical conditions outside the common knowledge and experience of jurors. See Guevara, 247 S.W.3d at 665. A plaintiff is not required to show that the defendant's negligent act or omission was "the sole cause of [his] injury, " only that it was a "substantial factor in bringing about the injury." Bustamante v. Ponte, 529 S.W.3d 447, 457 (Tex. 2017). In addition, "a medical causation expert need not 'disprov[e] or discredit[] every possible cause other than the one espoused by him.'" Transcontinental Ins. Co. v. Crump, 330 S.W.3d 211, 218 (Tex. 2010) (quoting Viterbo v. Dow Chem. Co., 826 F.2d 420, 424 (5th Cir. 1987)). However, "if evidence presents 'other plausible causes of the injury or condition that could be negated, the [proponent of the testimony] must offer evidence excluding those causes with reasonable certainty.'" JLG Trucking, 466 S.W.3d at 162 (quoting Transcontinental Ins. Co., 330 S.W.3d at 218).

         With these legal principles in mind, we will address the Loomis Defendants' challenge to each individual medical expert's testimony.

         Dr. Robert Josey, orthopedic surgeon

         At trial, the trial court considered the Loomis Defendants' challenge to the reliability of the testimony of Dr. Robert Josey, one of Crawford's treating physicians.[4] The Loomis Defendants explained to the trial court that they anticipated that Crawford would call Dr. Josey, an orthopedic spine surgeon, to testify and that Dr. Josey would likely opine that certain conditions suffered by Crawford in his neck and spine were caused by the May 2012 accident. The Loomis Defendants objected to Dr. Josey's anticipated expert testimony on the ground that "he has no reliable scientific basis for such an opinion."

         A Robinson hearing was conducted outside the presence of the jury. At the hearing, Dr. Josey testified that he had conducted two surgeries on Crawford-one in December of 2013 and one in March 2016-to correct injuries that, in his opinion, were caused by the accident. Dr. Josey explained that his opinion that the accident had caused Crawford's condition was based on the fact that Crawford "didn't really have any complaints and was working as a functional member of society until he got in the accident, and he started having significant pain and neurological symptoms after the accident." Dr. Josey went on to explain that his opinion on causation was also based on the results of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). According to Dr. Josey, Crawford's MRI, conducted shortly before his December 2013 surgery, revealed that Crawford had "right-sided disc herniation at L5-S1." Dr. Josey considered these MRI findings to be consistent with an "acute, " meaning "new, " injury.

         Dr. Josey acknowledged during the Robinson hearing that disc herniations can develop as a result of degeneration alone and that it would not be unusual for a man of Crawford's age to have a lower-back disc herniation.[5] Dr. Josey also acknowledged that even prior to the collision, Crawford had a condition known as "spinal stenosis, " or "tightening around the nerves, " at the L4-5 area of his spine. However, Dr. Josey testified that Crawford's pre-existing spinal stenosis "set the stage for him to become injured in the car accident" and that the car accident "exacerbate[d] or [sped] up the process of the spinal stenosis." At the close of the hearing, the trial court overruled the Loomis Defendants' objection and allowed Dr. Josey to testify.

         Before the jury, after testifying to his credentials and experience in orthopedic medicine, Dr. Josey told the jury that he had examined Crawford "10 to 12 times" and "ordered two MRIs over the course of his treatment." Dr. Josey presented Crawford's December 2013 MRI to the jury and pointed out to the jury the various places on the MRI that, according to Dr. Josey, evidenced injuries to Crawford's spine and neck. In part, Dr. Josey explained that the MRI showed that Crawford was suffering from a disc herniation in his lower back, L5-S1, and from a disc herniation in his neck, C6-7. Dr. Josey described "disc herniation" to the jury as occurring when the "gel that acts as a shock absorber" between vertebrae "spits out toward the spine" and explained that "there [are] many different reasons that herniation can happen, " often a traumatic event but sometimes without any apparent explanation. In discussing Crawford's lower-back disc herniation at L5-S1, the following exchange took place between Crawford's counsel and Dr. Josey:

COUNSEL: When-when you look for that explanation, Doctor, do you look for the original onset of symptoms? Is that something that you do?
JOSEY: Yes, I think that's pretty important in trying to figure out what was the source of the problem.
COUNSEL: Okay. And I think you told us that you've got the cursor where the disc herniation was on Mr. Crawford, were you able to determine the reasonable medical probability what the onset of the symptom was for him?
JOSEY: I think-I think the car wreck that was in 2012, was the source of what I see right there, that disc herniation at L5-S1.
COUNSEL: You base that on-or tell me what you base that on.
JOSEY: I base that on the fact that he was a functional member of society doing well with minimal to no pain, gets in a car wreck and now has symptoms that are consistent with an acute injury that I see on his MRI.

         With respect to Crawford's cervical disc herniation at C6-7, Dr. Josey explained that, in his opinion, this herniation was causing nerve pain in Crawford's arm and was also "more likely than not" a result of traumatic injury, as opposed to degeneration. Again, Dr. Josey explained, "[Crawford] didn't have neck pain prior to the accident. His head goes through the back window of the car. That's a lot of trauma to the neck. I think this probably is a ...

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